Rob and Tammy McNiven on a quarter century of sustained growth at Twinbrook

Rob and Tammy McNiven on a quarter century of sustained growth at Twinbrook

November 27, 2021

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How the smaller Ontario breeders became a major player.

by Murray Brown

It has been a long, sometimes arduous and almost entirely happy road for Rob and Tammy McNiven, two of the people who personify the grassroots perspective that people think of when harness racing is mentioned.

It was 25 years ago when Rob bought out his brother Brad in their partnership of a previous incarnation of Twinbrook Farms. Previous to the buyout, Twinbrook Farms had been mostly a pig and cattle farm with perhaps four or five standardbred mares roaming its pastures.

Upon the breakup of the original Twinbrook Farms, Rob and his wife Tammy chose to concentrate solely on breeding and raising standardbred horses.

In 2022, it will be 25 years since this author received a telephone call asking if he was receptive to the couple sending a small consignment of yearlings to the Harrisburg sale that fall under the banner of their fledgling Twinbrook Farms. There were several questions asked by them:

  1. Would they perhaps be better served if instead of representing the yearlings themselves turning them over to an agent who might guarantee them better visibility?

Yes or no. They were promised that if they consigned the horses and if they were of the quality that people were looking for, if they represented them well, they would be well rewarded, regardless of whichever route they chose to go.

  1. They only had a handful of their own yearlings. Would such a small number be overlooked in such a large venue as Harrisburg?

It was the author’s belief then and still is that quantity is significantly less important than is quality when it comes to selling yearlings. Horsepeople have a way of finding the gems in a consignment regardless of its size. In a manner quoting the famous line from Field of Dreams “If you build it, they will come.” All you have to do is substitute the word build with the word have: “If you have it, they will come.”

There was another small but quality-oriented Canadian breeder who was contemplating selling at Harrisburg for the first time that year — Stan and Tim Klemencic’s Rolling Hills Farm. The Klemencics had essentially the same questions as the McNivens. I cannot recall who’s idea it was, but the two farms got together and jointly addressed the perceived problem of not having enough horses to draw lookers. They ended up with a joint consignment of 11 yearlings selling under the Twinbrook banner.

It is now 25 years later and both entities are still in business, playing at the top of the game in their individual ways. The Klemencics felt that their individual needs would be better served by going through an agent and diversifying their offering by selling at both Harrisburg and Lexington through Preferred Equine Marketing. Twinbrook decided to sell exclusively at Harrisburg with the exception of a few head of Ontario-sired ones at the Canadian sales. Both, to this observer, have done extremely well, perhaps even thrived, once again proving that there is more than one way to skin that proverbial cat.

In the aftermath of their most successful sale yet, I was privileged to speak with Rob and Tammy and discuss the evolution of Twinbrook Farms.

The year 2022 will mark 25 years that you have been consigners to Harrisburg. You started small and have grown exponentially, both in terms of numbers and quality. In all those years, some good, some better and none of them poor, for Twinbrook, you have managed to achieve good results, occasionally even doing well in what might have been perceived as being in a down market.

“It might sound simplistic. We’ve always been very hard workers. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own success or lack of it. We are far from being inordinately wealthy, so, if we do not do well, we will suffer the consequences. In the same manner that if we do well, we will reap the rewards. Twinbrook Farms is all we do. We live or figuratively die based upon how well it does. In the good years, thankfully there have been far more of those than the occasionally challenging ones. Virtually everything we make goes back into the business, whether it be with regard to the physical establishment itself or the enhancement of our broodmare band. Of note is the fact that every single physical item on the farms, from our home to the stables to the fences is new in the sense that it has been built during our time here. The same philosophy relates to our broodmares. We constantly keep trying to improve our quality.*”

*Authors note: I certainly can attest to the veracity of that statement. Each year when I would arrive to come look at that year’s yearling crop, there would be something new, whether it be a new or refurbished stable, a new lab, a new piece of land, but always something better than what it had been previously. Of course, the improvement in the livestock was evident in the breeding of the yearlings submitted each year.

You do as good a job as anybody and better than most in raising and presenting your yearlings. What do you attribute that to?

“We mentioned the hard work, but it’s mostly a combination of things. Rob has had two great teachers in his dad Bob and his uncle Jack McNiven. There is no one, I repeat no one, who could prep a yearling better than Jack McNiven. Jack not only worked very hard, but he also paid attention and became involved with everything — especially the little things. No details were unimportant. Also of great importance is the fact that each yearling is different. They might have different needs. What you feed one yearling might not suit another near as well. Some yearlings might need more exercise than others. It’s important to us that our horses are happy. More often than not a happy horse will look the part and to our feeling, probably perform better once it leaves us for the job for which it is intended.

“Rob can finish off a horse exceptionally well. Just as Rob has learned so much in following in Uncle Jack’s footsteps, so has our daughter Jenna learned a great deal from Rob.

“She has perhaps surpassed him in some ways. She has become the face of Twinbrook Farms. She is quite active on social media keeping people apprised of the sometimes daily events in our horses lives. When it comes to knowledge of pedigrees, especially current ones, she is, in our opinion without peer. She knows her horses with the incredible detail that only an exceptional horseperson can. Twin B Nation, the colt that Determination and Luc Blais bought for $300,000 at Harrisburg was always her favorite, even in their formative stages when the horses hadn’t quite yet sorted themselves out. She always believed that he was destined to be special. Let’s hope that carries forth to the next stage of his life.”

Did the price that was paid for him surprise you?

“Yes, but only that you never — at least we don’t ever — go into a sale expecting those kind of prices. However, we certainly thought that if he didn’t sell well, we probably would have a disastrous sale. He was a truly exceptional colt. As people sometimes say, he checked all the boxes. He is a great looking colt who moved well and radiated a feeling of class about him. He comes from one of the greatest, if not THE greatest speed producing families in our sports history. His sire American Ideal is year after year, one of the leading sires in the sport, Going to a sale, we never have our expectations too high. We thought that if we had a six figure yearling in our consignment, then he would be the one. We surely will be following his progress and probably only next to perhaps Luc and Monsieur Godin will be his biggest fans next year and in the years to come. I think that Mac Nicol who owned American Ideal when he raced might have been the underbidder. I believe that Tony Alagna might have been bidding on him as well. We are thankful to them, as well.”

We’ve mentioned Uncle Jack McNiven. Tell us something about him.

“As you well know, to know Uncle Jack, is to love Uncle Jack. We have never known anybody to say even the slightest negative thing about Jack McNiven. There is a good reason for that, because there is absolutely nothing negative about the man. He is one of the sweetest, kindest and most generous people to ever walk this earth. Add to that he is great horseman — not only good and kind to horses but to all forms of animal life. He is still involved with horses to a small degree. He boards some for Ed James at his farm. As you know, he is extremely personable. There is nothing he enjoys more than to visit and interact with people. One of my regrets about this year’s Harrisburg sale was that Jack wasn’t there with us. He was prepared to come, but at the last minute discovered that his passport had expired. He would have loved seeing the colt sell that well, but probably more, he would have enjoyed the camaraderie associated with visiting with so many horsepeople.”

How many mares reside at Twinbrook Farms?

“It’s in the range of 36-40, of which 28 are farm owned. We do keep a few boarders for friends and customers. We tried to buy several more at Harrisburg, but, as you know, they were pretty hard to buy. We ended up getting two, the maiden, Avia Hanover, a full sister to Allywag Hanover and Twin B Captivating in foal to Sweet Lou. We wanted a couple more, but were shut out.”

You have evolved from mostly breeding to sires resident in Ontario to sires standing all over, mostly in New York and Pennsylvania, but actually wherever most of the quality stallions are perceived to be standing.

“We wish we were able to breed to more horses in our home province, but the reasons for this are mostly based on the economics we need to survive. The main reason is that with some exceptions, there were few stallions in the province where the prices that their yearlings brought were commensurate with the prices that we need to survive. Of course among pacers, Bettors Delight is a notable exception. With Cattlewash coming here and somewhat of a comeback being made by Sunshine Beach, this might change. Trotters do not seem to present anywhere near the same problem. I can’t explain why. Unfortunately we only own three trotting bred mares, so this doesn’t really apply. The puzzle is that Ontario still has one of, if not the very best Sires Stakes programs in North America.”

Jenna is the farm manager in waiting, if not already the major domo of the farm. How about your other children?

“Our youngest, our son Robert, is more of an equipment, specifically, tractor guy than he is as horse guy. Not that he doesn’t care for or isn’t involved with the horses, its only that he is more involved with the inner workings of the farm. He was on a tractor watching on his cell phone when Twin B Nation was sold. Our daughter, Maddie, is married to trainer/driver Travis Henry, a member of the Henry family horse dynasty. They have a son Kingston who is our pride and joy. You may have seen some pictures of him with Twin B Nation from Harrisburg. Maddie is also involved with the horses. She is a well-known horse massage therapist. Both girls were always involved with the horses. They were both barrel racing champions when they were younger.”

In shopping for mares, what is it you look for?

“As we’ve seen you quoted – ‘family, family and more family.’ We can’t afford the great mares, but we look for their siblings or close relatives from the same families. After that, we want decent size and good conformation of course. But family is a priority.”

When do you book your mares?

“It seems earlier and earlier each year. It will be pretty soon. We don’t want to take chances insofar as getting shut out from our favorite stallions.”

If you were going to describe your philosophy in the business, what would it be?

“To do the best job we can possible do, because raising and selling yearlings is only a part of the journey. To a large degree. how well our horses do in the sales ring is dependent on how good a job they do on the racetrack. That, of course, relates to how good a job we have done in breeding and raising them. To sum it up. If we were the customer instead of the seller, we would like to be treated in the same manner as we treat them.”

Any regrets?

“As Sinatra would say, maybe a few but not too many. The major one would be that Rob’s dad Bob didn’t live long enough to enjoy the success that we’ve had. Nobody loved the horse business and the Harrisburg experience more than Bob McNiven. He would be thrilled.”

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